What causes a panic attack?

Have you had panic attacks while flying? If so, do you know why?

Let me summarize.

Panic attacks are the result of the so-called ‘fight or flight response’ that’s hard-wired into your brain.

The purpose of the response is to SAVE you from things that suddenly present as an immediate threat to your life. Like a wild beast charging at you.

How ‘fight or flight’ works

Having spotted a clear and present danger, the response works by getting your brain to make an instant decision on whether to stand and fight. Or run.

To speed your decision-making, the choice of whether to fight or flee is made instantly by the UNCONSCIOUS part of your brain. That’s the same bit that automatically manages other processes like your heart rate, blood pressure and temperature.

In other words, you don’t CONSCIOUSLY decide.

Regardless of whether your brain decides to fight or flee, it instantly primes you for action. It does this by unleashing a surge of adrenaline which, in turn, immediately activates a series of frightening symptoms.

Your brain can misinterpret things

Although the response is triggered by something your brain interprets as a threat, sometimes your brain gets it WRONG. In other words, it sometimes views a safe situation as dangerous.

Panic attacks caused by flying fall into this category.

That’s because they’re caused by you having negative thoughts rather than by a real external threat. So how do negative thoughts make you panic?

The answer is simple. When you’re sat on a plane having negative thoughts, you obviously start feeling anxious.

And when you feel anxious, you can then become what psychologists call ‘hypervigilant’.

When you’re in a hypervigilant state of mind, you search obsessively for signs of danger. For example, you’ll be on the lookout for ‘odd’ sounds and sensations. And probably checking the faces of the crew to see if they look distressed.

And besides keeping an eye out for general threats, you may be furiously checking for specific ones, too. For example, if you worry about the wings snapping off, your eyes and ears will be wide open for anything that suggests that’s about to happen.

Needless to say, when you’re in this state of mind, your risk of having a panic attack goes through the roof. After all, with your brain URGENTLY hunting for danger, it’s just a negative thought away from hitting the ol’ panic button.

What makes you anxious?

So panic attacks are caused by hypervigilance. And hypervigilance is caused by anxiety. So what causes you to feel anxious in the first place?

Negative thoughts about flying. Duh.

But did you know that negative thoughts about flying come in two varieties? They are:

  • A fear of mechanical or system failure.
  • A fear of having a panic attack.

In both cases, your negative thoughts tend to be CATASTROPHIC. In other words, they focus on the most dreadful outcome imaginable.

Negative thoughts appear in two ways

Regardless of which category your anxieties fall into (and they can fall into both at the same time), negative thoughts can pop into your head in two ways.

  • Active thinking.
  • Automatic association.

‘Active thinking’ occurs when you deliberately think about something that makes you anxious. For example, whilst in mid-air, you start thinking about what you might experience if a wing suddenly snapped off.

Meanwhile, ‘automatic association’ happens when you spot something that doesn’t make you nervous – but it instantly reminds you of another thing that does. For example, as you enter a plane, the benign sight of the seats instantly makes you anxious because it reminds you that you’re about to fly.

Why you have negative thoughts

As a nervous flyer, there are several reasons why you’re susceptible to negative thoughts.

The first is that you CATASTROPHISE. In other words, your negative thoughts tend to assume the WORST possible outcome. That’s because you don’t challenge them effectively with facts.

Another thing that makes people vulnerable to anxiety-inducing thoughts is having elevated levels of background anxiety. In other words, being highly-strung in their day-to-day lives.

In summary

To understand how everything I’ve described works together, imagine this example.

You’re sat, rather anxiously, on a plane that’s mid-way through its journey. Unexpectedly, your aircraft hits some turbulence.

Instantly you worry that if it gets any worse, you could end up having a panic attack. The thought that a panic attack could be just around the corner makes you hypervigilant.

This hypervigilance has you looking for signs that you’re panicking. And it makes your heart rate shoot up while making you feel sweaty and trembly.

Your over-anxious brain reads these physical symptoms as proof that, indeed, you are about to have a panic attack.

Suddenly, a catastrophic thought races through your head screaming ‘I can’t cope with this situation’. The result?

You’re overwhelmed by a full-blown panic attack – one that is stoked by the dreadful realization that you can neither fight nor flee.

Your experiences

On that note, have you experienced a flight-related panic attack? If so, what happened? Leave something in the comments.

This is the second instalment in a series of posts about panic attacks.

Leave a comment


  1. Zachary Mease

    Hi, I’ve flown many times before, and experienced a panic attack only on my most recent flight. Coincidentally, it was the first time that I’d ever flown alone, and the first time that I sat in an aisle seat.
    I did not feel anxious before, and I had no reason to. I definitely wasn’t worried about the plane malfunctioning, so I don’t know what happened.
    It just suddenly felt like my blood was draining into my feet, and I was looking through tunnel vision. Lots of cold sweat, and a heavy heartbeat.
    I tried everything to keep myself distracted from what I was feeling (It DID NOT help that there wasn’t a barf bag in my seat…), standing up and walking to the bathroom DID seem to get my body back to normal though, but that ended when I sat back down.

    I don’t know why this happened, but it’s honestly the worst experience I’ve ever gone through. I’m afraid of flying, because of that association (Even remembering that flight makes me light-headed), and today, the same feeling happened when I drove over a bridge.
    Can you imagine if I’d fainted, in traffic, on a bridge?!

    Could something be wrong with my inner ear? By that I mean, is this my body responding to the change in pressure?

    1. Tim Benjamin

      Hi Zachary,

      Having a panic attack ‘out of the blue’ is relatively common. The potential trap for anyone in this situation is to start avoiding situations and environments which they fear could trigger another attack.

      By doing so, they can quickly find their quality of life being undermined as they avoid things like air travel. That was the mistake I made.

      For many people, an effective way to tackle panic attacks is to consult a licensed clinical psychologist who specialises in treating anxiety.


  2. Stacy

    Thank you for the very defined explanation. I started to get a panic attack on my last flight and somehow was able to breathe my way through it along with Lorazepam. I am claustrophobic and the “fear of having a panic attack” person. With your article, I will be trying to focus on positive thoughts and the facts and maybe that will help.

    1. Tim Benjamin

      You’re on the right track Stacy – good luck with it 🙂

  3. Lynne

    i had a panic attack on the way back from gran canaria in may 2013
    the pilot authorised oxygen,everyone was looking at me i was so embarresed i havent flown since.

    1. Tim Benjamin

      Hey Lynne – don’t let embarassement stop you getting on a plane again. Although that was obviously an unusual (and uncomfortable) situation for you, it’s part of a typical day for flight crew. And you’re never going to see your fellow passengers again – so who cares what they think (I bet few of them even noticed – most passengers are engrossed in watching movies, reading, sleeping, etc). Good luck 🙂

  4. Flippie

    I am a runner. Will it help me if I go out for a run if I get the feeling of an attack? Or is it dangerous? Just thinking of something to avoid that terrible feeling. Can something happen to me?

  5. Emilie

    This happened to me today. It was while we were onboard and waiting for the aircraft doors to be closed. I had a panic attack (with all the process you described), so I decided to get off the plane. People were nice to me, but I feel terrible right now. Depressed, weak… I couldn’t do it and I took my boyfriend with me… 🙁 I destroyed our vacation and I feel so guilty.

  6. Amy Watson

    I had a panic attack on a flight last month. I think it was for a variety of reasons, I was worried before the flight because I couldn’t find a water bottle, we were talking off in the dark (I have a fear of the dark) and I had been pushing the anxiety aside until we got on the plane. The feeling was awful, I knew I was having a panic attack and we were only half an hour in to a four hour flight and no one could help me but myself. I felt like I was not in control of my own body and I was worried I would pass out on the plane and I came quite close to it. We are flying again in August and I’m just hoping I can over come the fear because I never want to have to go through that again.

  7. Joelle

    I have been reading several of your posts Tim and thank you for your articles! I have been experiencing anxiety and panic attacks for about a year now. I was in the hospital a little over a year ago after taking Imitrex for my migraines and this constricted my heart. It was pretty scary as I thought this is what it must feel like to have a heart attack. Ever since I have had several panic attacks. I have been closterphobic for a long time, and truly have a fear of dying. Haven’t flown in 15 years I thought I could do it and booked a flight for my son and me to see colleges. Sadly, I had an attack the night before and cancelled our flight ….totally letting my son down. My question is do you know of any airline that would allow one to go onto an aircraft to “visit” to help get over these fears? I know it would be great and help me so much if I could walk down the tiny tunnel to get on the plane and then just sit in it. I am excited to start your program, but we are a low income family and I just don’t have extra money to do the short plane trips. My goal is to be able to get to a 3-4 hour flight.

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